With fresh, vibrantly colored ingredients aesthetically arranged into satisfying little rolls, sushi is a true culinary art form. But is sushi healthy? According to registered dietitians, while the Japanese dish can be a source of protein, fiber, and omega-3, the healthiness is dependent on the fish quality, the amount of soy sauce, and portion sizes.
First, the basics: There are three main types of sushi. “Nigiri sushi is where you’ll find a rectangular shape of rice with one piece of fish on top. Maki sushi are the rolls with ingredients in the middle and the nori wrapper on the outside. Sashimi is thinly sliced fish and no rice,”says May Zhu, RD, LDN. “Typically maki sushi are the rolls which may include sauces or deep-fried ingredients, and can change the overall calorie count.” Traditional maki sushi consists of seafood, vegetables, and vinegared rice rolled in a seaweed wrapper (nori). While there may be room for less healthy ingredients (tempura shrimp) in maki rolls, sushi can still be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, says Zhu.
We asked dietitians to break down the lingering “Is sushi healthy?” question and share the healthiest ways to eat it.
The type and quality of fish matters
The nutritional value of sushi depends on the quality of fish, according to Nour Zibdeh, RDN, CLT, a functional dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders. “You need to buy sushi from a restaurant that gets fish from high-quality sources since there’s a risk for parasites when eating raw fish,” she says. (For this same reason, “pregnant women should avoid raw sushi and people with a weak immune system or digestive issues may benefit from avoiding raw sushi,” Zibdeh says.)
Sushi is an excellent source of omega-3 due to the fish. These acids support brain cells, with studies indicating they can protect against neurodegeneration in older adults. The good news is most types of fish are rich in protein and omega-3s, but which one offers the most health benefits? “Fatty fish such as salmon contains higher amounts of essential omega-3 that support our heart and skin health and have lower amounts of mercury compared to other fish,” says Zhu.
Tuna is also a healthy choice, according to Washington-based registered dietitian Valerie Agyeman, RD. “Tuna is another fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and minerals like selenium,” says Agyeman. She also recommends shrimp. “Shrimp shares these health benefits but is lower in calories and fat.”
Brown rice vs. white rice
To understand the nutritional value of what you’re popping into your mouth, it’s helpful to understand the differences between brown rice and white rice. Brown rice is a whole grain comprising three parts: the outer, fiber-packed component (the bran), the core (the germ), and the middle layer (the endosperm), according to Harvard University. (“Brown” is really an umbrella term for whole grain rice, which can be red, black, and purple in color.) Brown rice has more fiber and as such takes longer to cook and chew.
White rice is a refined grain, which means the fibrous bran and germ layers have been polished away, leaving only the white middle layer. This process removes some of the nutrients, meaning you might opt for brown rice sushi if you’re more health-conscious.
“Brown rice is slightly more nutritious than white rice. It has more fiber, B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and manganese,” says Zibdeh. “Sushi is traditionally made with white rice and I feel that it’s perfectly fine to enjoy sushi with white rice. You can eat brown rice in other meals.”